Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In modern U.S. foreign policy decision-making, the Administration of John Kennedy’s successful and peaceful resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is considered by most scholars to be the gold standard as how good decisions ought to be made. There are numerous components to that sequence of decision making which have analyzed by scholars for years. Since the turn of the century, many of the dimensions to this highpoint of the Kennedy Administration have gained even further scrutiny as additional material was declassified and made available to scholars. It is precisely the current Trump Administration’s escalating crisis with North Korea which has made it frighteningly obvious how little similarity exists between the Kennedy team’s operating model in 1962 and the decision-making apparatus of President Trump himself and his Administration.

Among the numerous lessons that scholars and subsequent decision-makers discerned from the process employed by John Kennedy was an awareness that the U.S. needed to insure that the Soviets would not be boxed into a corner. They understood that some space needed to remain for the Russians to wiggle out of the confrontation and save face. If no room was left through which to escape, then the likelihood for a nuclear confrontation only escalated.  In fact, it was the presence of just such an escape hatch for the Russians that enabled Kennedy to get Nikita Khrushchev to “blink” in what Secretary of State Dean Rusk referred to as an “eyeball to eyeball” contest.   

There is one obvious dimension to the Missile Crisis decision that ought to be examined. Kennedy and his staff were extremely careful to use statements and words with great care; lest they be misinterpreted or misunderstood. (Kennedy, for example, officially referred to the U.S. blockade of Cuba only as a “quarantine”.) All public and even private comments to the Russians–were rehearsed.  Language for private communiques were poured over, especially to avoid translating mistakes or linguistic misunderstandings.

The American people and the entire world are now being toyed with by a President who is almost whimsical in his use of language. In the geopolitical world generally, winning is neither everything nor the only thing, but Trump does not get it.  

Avoiding a nuclear confrontation with Pyongyang needs firm but cautious behavior. China holds most the critical cards. They also do not want a nuclear North Korea.  Making a deal with Kim Jong-un in all likelihood is doable. Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis have used strong language but with care in addressing the North Koreans.  They may well have very serious concerns about where President Kim wants to take this fight, but they have chosen their words and suggested ways to discuss the issue of North Korea’s nuclear program. 

Trump’s staff, however, from the top down is unable to control Trump’s bombastic twittering.  If the President persists on pushing the envelope and threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” like the world has never seen, Kim may well get pushed into a corner.

In 1962, Russia’s rhetoric was also confrontational but Kennedy avoided responding to it. He did not see ignoring these remarks as a weakness. Kennedy sought results, hopefully without a military confrontation. At the time of the standoff, no weapons in Cuba were yet operational. Russia had nukes but not situated just miles off the U.S. coast.  The missiles for Cuba could be removed and never be functional. In a private agreement Kennedy agreed that within months the U.S would withdraw its missiles from Turkey alongside the Soviets’ border; something the U.S. actually already had decided to do anyway. Khrushchev could go home with something and the crisis could be averted.

Kennedy won but his ego did not need to embarrass or emasculate his adversary. Americans today, reportedly even those serving in the White House, are scared primarily because they are not sure if Trump ever will be capable of doing just that. Can Trump actually negotiate on a global level? Can he give and take? Can the President win but lose and still be satisfied? If you make a deal here and it blows up, more than a piece of property could be lost.

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